He laughs and doesn't apologize. "I don't think it's my mission to sanitize," says Edwards, who has hosted the popular NPR morning show for the past 23 years and who will appear at a New Orleans fundraiser Friday for NPR affiliate WWNO-FM.
Plus, as a public-radio broadcaster, Edwards feels a particular kinship with the country legend. "He's always said he wants to give voice to the voiceless, and he talks about people nobody else talks about," he says of Cash. "No one sounds like him, and he's always been his own guy, recording whatever the hell he wants to record, without following the latest trend. That's a thing that public radio has been historically about -- we are not dependent on the quirks of what's acceptable commercially, because we're not commercial. We don't have to sell products."
The lack of dependence on advertising dollars doesn't make NPR immune from criticism -- far from it. The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) has blasted the public broadcasting network for what it calls a pro-Palestinian slant in its coverage of the Middle East; the criticism resulted in NPR losing underwriting dollars in some cities. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and others, though, have accused NPR of being pro-Israel. NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin has said the accusations result from the network's reporting both sides of the story; he acknowledged NPR may have committed omissions in its reporting in the past, but said its Middle Eastern coverage is fair and will not change.
That's not all: listeners on the West Coast also griped that NPR's election coverage overly favored East Coast issues, a complaint Edwards calls justifiable. "There was too much New York and Washington coming out of NPR," he says. "Some of the stations out West were complaining about election coverage; I think we shut it down around midnight or 1 a.m. our time, and there were still races going on down there."
NPR responded by forming NPR West, an expanded version of its Los Angeles bureau. The $13 million multimedia production center will focus on Western regional news, he says. "People out West didn't feel they were hearing enough about themselves. That was a legitimate complaint."
It's an example of how NPR does heed listener feedback -- to a point, according to Edwards. Part of his New Orleans appearance will include gathering comments from listeners, but there are some topics the storied network won't consider. "We do avoid subjects that are in gross bad taste, and particularly on Morning Edition -- it's a breakfast-hour program. ... Remember when Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley were still married," he asks, "and Diane Saywer scored this big coup, asking if they had sex? Now, that was a high point in journalism," he says. "We don't do that kind of thing, and frankly I'm glad ... What we cover is politics, world affairs, the economy, energy. Things that should be important to people and to much of the news media. And yet we have an audience. Go figure."
The coverage has earned Morning Edition a 1999 George Foster Peabody Award -- broadcasting's highest honor -- and, by NPR's count, 13 million listeners, a figure Edwards jokes they probably make up. Morning Edition, he says, "went from zero and now it's the most listened-to program in all of public radio -- and the biggest fund raiser," he adds. "So stations like us a lot. But it's the evolution of the network -- we have a lot more resources than we used to. When Morning Edition started we put Robert Siegel in London and he was the first overseas employee of NPR ... and now we have 15 overseas bureaus; we have a presence all around the world and all across this country."
The Peabody Award was nice, but "you're only as good as the next story you do," Edwards continues. "I think I'm most proud of the way we respond to breaking news. We always knew we could go out and do highly produced, polished, well-written pieces of radio, but to adapt to breaking news and be able to do a decent job of giving people minute-by-minute information as it's happening is so important."
He may deal with high-pressure on-air moments with apparent ease, but Edwards confesses to battling bouts of fandom when interviewing a Johnny Cash or someone similar. "I guess some women would call it sexist, but I remember many years ago looking into the eyes of Lauren Bacall and forgetting what I was going to say."
Good thing it was a radio moment.